I: Historic inequities

Quantifying the damage in Atlanta and Washington, DC

The devastation, disconnection, and displacement resulting from plowing highways through cities and neighborhoods is easy to see, but rarely do we quantify the costs in terms of lost wealth, land, residents, and businesses. In addition to the look at the history below in Part I, we also examine current and historical data on the impact of one built and one unbuilt highway in Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, DC in an attempt to quantify what was lost—and what could have been lost.

The Interstate age: Damaging divisions, created by design

aerial oblique photo shows interstate construction tearing through DC neighborhood from above with washington monument visible in background
In a scene repeated all across the country, this 1968 photo (looking west—Washington Monument visible at top right) shows historic southeast District of Columbia neighborhoods soon to be demolished as construction on Interstate 395/695 continues eastward. The historic Marine Barracks is visible in the middle right. Credit: District of Columbia. Department of Highways and Traffic and District Department of Transportation, “Southeast/Southwest Freeway,” DDOT Historic Collections, accessed June 13, 2023.

As the story goes, after being shaped in his youth by a long and delay-filled trip in a military convoy across the United States on the country’s limited network of small highways and backroads in 1919, President Dwight Eisenhower advanced plans to create a national network of interstate highways.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act, passed during his administration in 1956, established the program for funding and building the new system. The primary intent of the interstate was to connect cities (busy, multimodal, economic hubs) and states with a new high-speed form of travel with limited access to minimize delays. While history is unclear on this point, there’s some evidence that President Eisenhower (or some in his administration at least) never intended these new highways to cut through the heart of cities.

“He went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way. He pointed out that when the Clay Committee Report was rendered, he had studied it carefully, and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored. He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who had steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes.”

—Recollection of General Bragdon, Secretary of Commerce and head of the Bureau of Public Roads, of an April 1960 meeting with Eisenhower.

Most outspoken critics of putting highways through the center of cities and urban areas, whether planners or critics like Lewis Mumford, were marginalized, and the prevailing attitude amongst those responsible for implementing the plans was one of inevitability. During the 1950s, the makeup of cities was changing. After World War II, the federal government responded to a postwar housing crisis by creating programs that encouraged suburban development, like the GI Bill and the National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration.

White Americans saw several advantages to moving to the suburbs: brand new everything, lower taxes, lower upfront living costs, better resources like schools, and more distance from Black Americans, who had started moving to cities after the Civil War in search of economic opportunity and better social conditions.

It’s worth noting that before the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act and as early as the late 1930s, scores of cities were already planning and/or building new highways, some of which were later incorporated into the Interstate Highway System. While there was federal money available to cities and states to support highway construction, the match rates were far lower than the 90 percent share enshrined in the 1956 law, one of the primary factors that accelerated the expansion of the Interstate Highway System.1

a historic map of the US showing interstate routes crossing the US in black lines
A map of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways from the US Department of Transportation, which didn’t provide a detailed look at how highways would be routed and sited within cities. Credit: USDOT and FHWA.

By the time planning for the country’s interstate systems was underway, white, wealthy Americans were already leaving cities in droves. Their move to the suburbs placed pressure on city governments concerned that local businesses would suffer from a shrinking consumer base. Many city and business leaders responded to this pressure by trying to make traveling from the suburbs to jobs and retail in cities more attractive. They saw federally funded highways (called “freeways,” which gave the impression that this expensive, heavily subsidized resource was a low-cost travel option) as the perfect tool.

Constructing highways through cities served two purposes for city leaders. As an option for high-speed travel, the highways gave white, wealthy suburbanites convenient access to urban centers and allowed them to drive past or through segregated communities of color. At the same time, highways were an excellent new tool for so-called “urban renewal” efforts. Targeting communities of color for highway construction allowed urban leaders to displace certain residents and remove “blighted” areas and pave the way for their vision of economic revitalization, which certainly wasn’t inclusive of everyone.

aerial photo of cincinnati showing intact downtown streets in 1958 aerial photo of cincinnati showing how interstates obliterated buildings and streets in 1966
These photos from Cincinnati show how much destruction was wrought between 1958 (left photo) and 1966 (right photo) to build the interchanges for Interstates 71 and 75 just west of downtown.


The urban renewal movement sought to enhance cities’ economic vitality by targeting and systematically removing housing and businesses deemed substandard. These practices disproportionately targeted communities of color because these areas had been neglected and denied investment for so long. Rather than finding ways to invest in them and build them up, those with the power used the new renewal programs to raze entire neighborhoods and displace hundreds of thousands of residents. The USDOT estimates that construction of the interstates displaced 475,000 households and over a million people in less than two decades.

Communities of color were often deliberately and intentionally targeted and razed by avowed racists who selected the routes. In the South especially, it was not uncommon for openly racist leaders to control those decisions.

In Alabama, Sam Englehart, who was also the leader of a hate group known as the Alabama White Citizens Council, became the Director of the Alabama Highway Department. In one of the most egregious but far from atypical examples, Englehart personally intervened to reroute I-65 through prosperous Black neighborhoods in West Montgomery, even intentionally targeting the home of civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy for destruction. Residents of these communities lacked the political power needed to halt such projects. 2

“During the Senate confirmation hearing before the Committee on Commerce on January 15, 1969, several Senators asked about the nominee’s (John Volpe) views on highways and his actions as Governor. Senator Philip A. Hart (D-Mi.) told Governor Volpe that ‘in the eyes of minority groups,’ the Federal highway program ‘is an enemy, because they do not generally run the highway through my house or yours; it is the fellow whose property is cheaper, quicker to get, but who when he is moved has less opportunity to relocate successfully than you and I have.’”

The D.C. Freeway Revolt and the Coming of Metro, Part Six. Richard Weingroff, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

While highways became an essential tool for “urban renewal,” all manner of resources were employed to segregate or demolish communities of color. Robert Moses intentionally built bridges too low for transit vehicles to pass under, effectively keeping the lower-income and people of color who rode transit in higher shares from accessing certain neighborhoods, parks, airports, and job centers.3

New highways—fast, easy routes between work and home—succeeded in bringing suburbanites into cities for work, but they also systematically carved out the urban core of cities, harmed communities of color, and failed to preserve the local economy or otherwise make the urban areas more enticing to the white suburbanites.

Two people walk in the street lacking sidewalks next to the bare wall of an elevated interstate
The interstate system has carved up cities small and large, rendering it either impossible or extremely dangerous to get around with a vehicle. Two people attempt to navigate an interstate frontage road without sidewalks in Jackson, MS. Photo courtesy of Scott Crawford.

Of course, highways were just one part of a larger system of exclusionary practices put into place with the help of federal investment and policies. However, once highways were in place, they created a new set of unforeseen problems and costs, which federal, state, and local governments would be forced to grapple with for years to come, even to the present day.

This more openly racist past may be behind us, but that history still shapes the present. And the fact that our federal transportation program and most state transportation agencies were chartered or tasked with building new highways as their primary role for decades is the reason why a deeply held system of assumptions, measures, models, and other hidden factors continue to produce the same inequitable outcomes, regardless of the motives of those in charge.

This is what Part II explores in detail.

Quantifying the damage inflicted and avoided in two cities

We examined current and historical data on the impact of one built and one unbuilt highway each in Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, DC in an attempt to quantify what was lost and illustrate what could have been lost. Click below read their stories.

Read the rest of Divided by Design

Explore the report’s full content using the sidebar menu at right (or below if on a mobile device), or jump to one of the three parts with the graphics below.

report cover graphic showing a stylized highway cutting through a city.graphic showing a stylized scene of construction of a highway through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene a few blocks away from a highway running through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene of what a neighborhood could look like after tearing a highway down

Don’t miss supplemental maps, videos, and animations in the DC and Atlanta case studies which are not in the hard copy. Download a PDF version of the report.